The Millennium Development Goals and the Obama Administration’s Continuity with John Bolton

As President Obama prepares to head up to New York for the UN General Assembly meetings, which this year are focused around the 10 year anniversary of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), some stories are starting to appear in the papers about the UN and US relations.  Colum Lynch, for example, the Washington Post’s UN beat reporter, has an article asking about the relevance (or not) of the UN.   Former US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, has a very interesting article in the National Review running down the various ways in which the Obama administration’s reflexive policy of “always engage” with the UN and its institutions and processes is damaging the US on matters ranging from Iran to nuclear weapons.  Eileen Donahoe, US ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council, has a piece in last week’s New York Times/International Herald Tribune defending the administration’s controversial policies in sticking it out with the HRC.  There’s a lot to be evaluated in all those pieces, which range across the full US-UN relationship; my views tend toward Bolton’s article, and additionally I find Ambassador Donahoe’s claims about the good that US participatiuon at the HRC unconvincing in extreme.  But that for another time.

Rather, I was most interested to see in today’s Wall Street Journal, a news story discussing specifically the MDGs and the administration’s response to calls that the US step up and fund the .7% of GDP that countries supposedly agreed to provide in development assistance.  The position of the Bush administration, in the person of John Bolton during the 2005 UN reform summit (the equivalent of this week’s meeting in 2005), was that while the US had agreed to the “goals” of the MDGs, it had never agreed to a whole long, long list of targets, timetables, schedules, contributions, monetary funding, and so on as set out in the five year plans emanating from Professor Jeffrey Sachs and his UN team.  For which Bolton and the Bush administration were excoriated and vilified and attacked.

So, I was interested to see the WSJ news story quoting US ambassador to the UN, Susan Rice, when pressed on funding for the MDGs, declare that … while the US had agreed to the “goals” of the MDGs, it had never agreed to the specific targets, timetables, schedules, contributions, etc.  (The exact quote is behnd the sub wall, on my other computer, but I’ll try to pull it up later.)  Update:  thanks Glen in comments, here is the quote from the WSJ news story:

“The U.S. has never subscribed to specific percentages of GDP as hard targets for us,” said Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. “Others have voluntarily embraced them… but from our point of view, we have substantially increased over the last very few years our development assistance, and particularly the emphasis on health outcomes, on agricultural productivity, on things that save lives.”

This is the correct substantive position in my view; the US has substantially increased work through its parallel activities particularly, which it believes are more effective and better monitored. It was not what the bien-pensant world, the world of the New York Times and the international community, however, thought when Bolton said it in 2005 (see his memoirs for reactions, as well as newpaper accounts from the time).

From the standpoint of continuity of policy, Ambassador Rice’s language is so close to what Ambassador Bolton said five years ago it seems unlikely to me it was by accident; it seems more like a diplomatic-legal signal that the US position is that it never did commit itself to what Ambassador Bolton’s critics said the US had committed itself to do.  I’m not in the least unhappy that the administration has taken this position, of course; but it is this week’s instance of yet more continuity with the Bush administration’s then-wicked, wicked position.